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Play: One of the most important factors in a child’s development


July 28, 2014
Brain & Behavior, Health

The previous two articles in this series by Michigan State University Extension focused on children playing and learning in nature. Research proves there are positive effects of nature on children and their overall well-being. Nature can be attributed to creativity, better cognitive skills, lower obesity rates and a whole host of other beneficial reasons doctors are actually prescribing “time in nature” to their patients. In addition, recent studies indicate that not only nature, but letting children have free play has a big impact on their overall health by what educators call executive function.

Executive function is a broad educational term used for many cognitive skills including organization, task initiation and the ability to switch between activities. According to a new study by psychologists at the University of Colorado, having free time to play has a direct and positive effect on executive functioning. Having positive executive functioning is an important predictor of school readiness, academic performance and positive life outcomes, including earning capacity and good health.

According to Jessica Lahey, “Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children.”

Children who have more time in free play, spontaneous activities, self-selected reading and more time in the natural world are found to have more highly developed executive function. According to Peter Grey a Boston College psychology professor, who studies the benefits of free play in human development and has written the book “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life,” he states:

Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates.

I was talking to my dental hygienist; she has three young boys and is an athlete herself, so every four months I am updated on the latest sports from T-ball to 3-on-3 basketball tournaments. Like many families with two working parents, her kids were in multiple activities, and both parents and the kids spend a lot of car time, practice time, game time and being generally busy. During my last visit, I inquired about the kids and their latest sporting activities. Honestly I was surprised by her comments. Interestingly, it seems that the family has taken some “time off” from the hustle and bustle of three kids in multiple organized activities and have spent the last few months just doing what kids used to do – play. Best of all, the entire family has felt relaxed and has enjoyed being less busy. She reported happier kids, happier adults and beamed as she talked about all the things they have learned on their own. How excited the kids are “discovering” the woods near their home, building forts and general kid stuff. I bet this will be remembered as the best summer vacation yet – not to mention having their kids return to school with better executive functioning.


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